The Tahitian Ukulele

tahitian-ukulele.jpgI ran across this strange gem about two years ago reading up on distant cousins of the guitar in my quest for more knowledge about the cigar box guitar. One person describes a Tahiti Uke as “The Tahitian ukulele or banjo is an 8 string guitar usually measuring about 32″ long x 9.5″ wide x 1.75″ thick.”

Really these are about 10x easier to construct than a cigar box guitar – there’s only two pieces involved. The instrument is very simple, really. You have the body, which is one piece of wood consisting of the neck and body with a cone shaped cutout through the middle, the opening wider at the top, narrowing to a 2″ hole through the bottom. The other piece is a thin piece of wood (the soundboard) which rests on top of the cone shaped hole. Toss a piece of wood over the soundboard, and string ‘er up and you have a working instrument. Volia! Way easier than building a traditional uke.

Ok yes it is that easy, but for an instrument you expect to last several years a couple more steps need to be taken. I’ve just started construction of my own Tahitian Ukulele. On this episode of the New Southern Workshop, I’ll guide you through how to  build your own Tahitian Ukulele. Click through for more below the cut…Ok, so probably the most simple thing you can do to increase the lifespan of any stringed instrument is to add support to the neck. This means adding a steel rod of some sort. Some people get all fancy and add double adjustable truss rods. We aren’t putting bass strings on this thing so that won’t be necessary. We just don’t want the neck to warp over time with tension on the neck. So figure out where the neck will be, trace around your metal rod (I used about 17″ of “fine threaded #10-32 x 36″ which cost me about $2.00 and cut it to length (eyeballed) in the hardware store with a jaws of life rather than buy a hacksaw)… anyways trace the rod onto the wood and go at it with a chisel. This shouldn’t take more than 10 minutes to cut the trough if you’re careful, 5 if you’re sloppy. Double the time if you’re using a hardwood. I don’t recommend red oak it’s like chiseling stone.

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I used two pieces of 1″x12″ 4 foot long clear pine. Well, mostly clear. The whole instrument should only be about 28″ long with a scale length (distance between the nut and bridge) of 13.5-19″.  So just pick two pieces where the knots are at one end and cut that part off. I went with a 19″ scale length and made the whole thing a little closer to 32″ overall so I can convert it to a six string travel guitar down the road if I decide to go that route. The reinforcement rod/truss rod I installed earlier will help with that significantly. The wood I used has a natural red streak that runs through the middle of the body and up the neck.

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Next up, spread the glue somewhat thin using a credit card, and clamp the two pieces in place. This laminates the wood together, resisting warp, and sandwiches the truss rod in the middle. I’ll update tomorrow with additional progress. Tomorrow should involve mounting the tuners, cutting and carving the neck, and carving the conical shaped hollow.

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The inside hollow:

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I guess what makes these particularly interesting instruments is that they’re a solid piece of wood with almost no fragile parts. You can safely pack one in any luggage and it’ll arrive at the other end intact and ready to play. Even better, it uses fishing line as guitar string, so a 500′ roll of the stuff should last you and the Uke factory a lifetime. It’s a very sturdy design, and if things got a little crazy at a gig, if it came to it, you could use it as a bludgeoning weapon and still play it afterwards. A true “axe”, so to speak.

Comparison pic. By laminating several pieces together you can make a fairly wide Uke out of pieces of cheap scrap wood instead of buying expensive knotless wood like I did. What truly shocks me is that people charge $300 for these things when they cost at most $80 to make (most of that is the 8 tuners!!). Some entrepenuer will realize with economy of scale, you can mass produce these for about what it costs to make a baseball bat and make these things the next big thing.

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14 Responses to The Tahitian Ukulele

  1. kaezra ezra says:

    i want to know what kind of thin board you use as the sound board. is it just a regular pressed plywood or it has to be a thin board. and i want to know the size of the hole back and front for what kind of ukulele tenor, soprano,concert or baritone.and what kind of wood you use for the whole thing? as a respected proffessional what kind of wood you recomand? is solid maple any good? thank you god bless.

  2. admin says:

    Given the quality of the instrument overall I don’t think plywood or riftsawn spruce is going to really affect sound quality much. A solid piece of wood won’t sound noticeably better, but it makes a good selling point on ebay or at a tourism shop. The most important thing is to make the sound board as large as possible to give you as much volume as possible. I’d use 9″ diameter as a reference size, and depending on the size of wood work from there. Sound hole should be about 3″, or 1/3rd the diameter of the soundboard. Soundboard should be as thin as possible without noticeably flexing under the bridge.

  3. Kathy Kreidler says:

    What did you do for a case for the lower uke in the picture?

  4. admin says:

    I’d check out a guitar shop and ask to see their F5 Mandolin cases. You might find something that fits. But in all reality its a very durable instrument. You can’t crush it, and strings are super cheap. The only thing to worry about on an instrument like this is the tuners, which could be protected by a box of your own choosing. If you’re still looking for something, maybe a soft cover, or a banjo case, or a 3/4 size guitar case.

  5. victor says:

    mans, i made this year like 60 tahitian ukeleles.. ensembled and in one Piece.. add me to facebook (vhjofre@hotmail.com) and you can see al the photos of construction..

    or i can send you detailed photos of the construction.

    Victor Jofre
    http://www.asonu.com/catalogo.html

  6. Ben says:

    I am looking for pictures how they make ukulele out from coconut tree.

  7. admin says:

    You’re in luck! Victor (one post up from yours) sent me about 30mb of great construction photos while I was away in Argentina, I just haven’t had a chance to throw them up yet. I think he does in fact make a Tahitian ukulele from a coconut tree, in addition to other types of wood. I’ll try and put them up here in the next few days.

  8. Regina says:

    Really keen on making my own ukelele. Have found your notes very useful to help start off my first one.
    What tool/s do you use for hollowing out the sound hole?
    Also, would like to know what kind of tuning pegs you used and what size/length?
    Can’t wait to see more construction photo’s.

  9. pora says:

    hi im jus wondering how much it would cost to buy a uke from u n have it sent to me in melbourne(austrlia)… It would be great to know how much it would cost, i am very interested in a tahitian uke iv’e got a few cook island ukes buti want a tahitian one………. THANK YOU…..PORA

  10. Victor says:

    I contruct more than 500 Tahitian ukuleles last 3 years, if someone need help to construct his own uke contact me and I will help happy, I know that feel creat your yen sounds and share this sensation is a pleasure to me

    my web is http://www.asonu.com

    victor

  11. Brent Hutchinson says:

    Many Thanks to you Victor.
    My Jah ukelele arrived today 9th August 2011.
    The postage was very efficient also, it took 10 days to arrive to me in Australia.
    I am very pleased with the quality and workmanship in your Ukeleles.
    I look forward to enjoying my new Uke.
    Do you also make 4 string Ukes as well?
    Many Thanks
    Brent

  12. Titch the clown says:

    I am wondering why the “stick together the pieces and dig a hole and get another piece of wood over the top” – why not dig a hole sideways then join the wood? A couple of two by sixes and a circular saw?

    Leaves a join in the soundboard but the bridge would bridge that.

  13. riki says:

    that not bad but check out this video. u could learn how to detail it aswell.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wux-Evx1Vy4

  14. Connor says:

    Could you give me the exact type of fishing line to use? I tried stringing mine with monafilament 50 pound test and it just would not reach the proper sound. When I tried to tune it the right octave, the strings would just break.

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